A Canticle for Leibowitz

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Lent started recently, and, by coincidence, I started reading A Canticle for Leibowitz, which opens with a monastic novice passing his Lenten vigil in the desert — in the 26th century, six centuries after the Flame Deluge has plunged civilization into a new Dark Age:

The text reveals that as a result of the war there was a violent backlash against the culture of advanced knowledge and technology that had led to the development of nuclear weapons. During this backlash, called the “Simplification,” anyone of learning, and eventually anyone who could even read, was likely to be killed by rampaging mobs, who proudly took on the name of “Simpletons”. Illiteracy became almost universal, and books were destroyed en masse.

Isaac Edward Leibowitz had been a Jewish electrical engineer working for the United States military. Surviving the war, he converted to Roman Catholicism and founded a monastic order, the “Albertian Order of Leibowitz”, dedicated to preserving knowledge by hiding books, smuggling them to safety (booklegging), memorizing, and copying them. The Order’s abbey is located in the American southwestern desert, near the military base where Leibowitz had worked before the war, on an old road that may have been “a portion of the shortest route from the Great Salt Lake to Old El Paso.” Leibowitz was eventually betrayed and martyred. Later beatified by the Roman Catholic Church, he became a candidate for sainthood.

Centuries after his death, the abbey is still preserving the “Memorabilia”, the collected writings that have survived the Flame Deluge and the Simplification, in the hope that they will help future generations reclaim forgotten science.

Recently, Robin Hanson called attention to William Grassie’s fuzzy-headed far view on surviving such a catastrophe, calling it not just fuzzy-headed but also amazingly wrong-headed, because it suggested that a single impractical book — Maps of Time — could preserve literacy.

That’s an odd complaint, I said, given that we know many, many people learned to read specifically to read one such “impractical” book, the Bible, and, as Canticle reminds us, the last time we needed to bootstrap society, we did it with the help of religious monasteries, which had retained many ancient texts and the ability to read them because they were tenuously connected to the Bible.

Today, especially amongst American Protestants-turned-agnostics, we look at the Catholic Church as an enemy of Truth and Progress — the Church silenced Galileo! — but through most of human history it served as a kind of Long Now Foundation, establishing rites and rituals that would sustain the Church and its traditions for generations and giving great thought to Big Questions.

I did not know it at the time, but Walter Miller, the author, had served in a bomber crew that helped destroy the monastery at Monte Cassino during World War II, and he converted to Catholicism after the war. Seen through his sympathetic eyes, the Church is a source of great practical wisdom, with established methods for steering flawed human beings toward productive behaviors — not unlike the Overcoming Bias and Less Wrong crowds, but more experienced, if also tied to a peculiar cosmology.

This ties in with Robert Nelson’s Reaching for Heaven on Earth, which, according to TWV, divides many great thinkers into two camps:

He calls his first category “the Roman tradition,” after both the empire and the Catholic Church. The thinkers he discusses under this rubric range from Aristotle to Paul Samuelson. “The leading figures of the Roman tradition,” he claims, “have not been the great revolutionaries of history, but men who typically saw moderation as a virtue and favored an incremental process of human development” (31). He lists 15 characteristic views of those in this tradition:
  1. The world is rational; nature, including man, is guided by the dictates of reason.
  2. The material and external world are the original and fundamental reality — not the world of the mind and ideas.
  3. Men are in principle capable of discovering and understanding the rationality of human existence.
  4. Systematic scientific investigation is required to uncover the rational laws of nature, demanding careful research and studies.
  5. Progress is found in gradual movement toward a natural and rational destiny.
  6. Valid law is natural law, which should govern humanity.
  7. Justice is what is rational, which is common to all.
  8. Because all humanity shares the same reason, all men are fundamentally equal.
  9. Life is lived to achieve happiness; a utilitarian goal is appropriate for mankind.
  10. Society is an organic community steered for the common good.
  11. Private property is a beneficial instrument of the common good.
  12. It is natural and just to pursue one’s self-interest.
  13. The poor are deserving: Society has the strong obligation to support them as fellow members of the community.
  14. Wisdom is found in moderation.
  15. This-worldy, commonsensical, and pragmatic attitudes best serve the needs of humanity.

Nelson’s second category is the “Protestant tradition,” which includes thinkers as diverse as Plato, Augustine, Karl Marx, and Herbert Spencer. For these thinkers, the moral status of law is “much less exalted…. Law is necessary in the Protestant tradition, but is merely a coercive device required to keep wicked men from doing still greater damage to one another. Indeed, all government is seen in this light, as a sinful product of man’s condition. Nevertheless, its decrees must be obeyed until God — or history — finally opens the way to a happier destiny” (55). Nelson’s list of characteristic Protestant views diverges dramatically from the Roman:

  1. The human condition in this world is deep alienation from original and true nature.
  2. Owing to man’s corrupted condition, reason is unreliable, often a source of delusion.
  3. Existing law is a corrupted product — like reason — of current human depravity.
  4. Justice is not to be found in the rational, but in the iron dictates of God or history.
  5. The ways of the world are revealed to men not through reason, but through revelation.
  6. True progress demands a revolutionary transformation of human existence.
  7. The current world is destined for sin; the triumph of virtue must await a heaven in the hereafter or the arrival of an earthly heaven.
  8. Mankind is divided among the saved and the condemned, the superior and the inferior groups.
  9. Life is lived not for happiness, but for disciplined labor in the service of God or history.
  10. Self-interest and economic competition exert an evil influence in the affairs of man.
  11. Communal living and common ownership are the highest form of existence.
  12. Government, like property, is a coercive social instrument designed to control sinful and unruly natures.
  13. The poor are responsible for their fate; society must not coddle them.
  14. Moderation is banality; pragmatism is a sign of weakness.
  15. The record of history is not progress, but retrogression, the fall of man.

Again, American Protestants-turned-agnostics tend to see the Catholic Church as similar to the Protestant Church, but with more silly rituals, when the key distinction through most of history has been the conservative, moderate nature of Catholicism versus the romantic, millennial nature of most Protestantism, at least in its origins.

Aretae recently mentioned that Tolstoy’s War and Peace helped him understand the entirely foreign worldview of an honest-to-goodness monarchist. I felt that Miller’s Canticle gave me a similar insight into Catholic monks — and reminded me that we may have torn down much of what the Church stood for, but we haven’t done a good job replacing it — which is why Peter Taylor recommends Yet Another Space Alien Cult. But we’ll get to that some other time.

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